Pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba arrived at Catalina Bar & Grill this week on the crest of an attractive new recording. Unfortunately, it's not exactly his, although he is listed as a "featured artist" and is the most visible musical presence in Charlie Haden's CD, "Nocturne," due out Tuesday.
Given the circumstances, it wasn't surprising that the Rubalcaba trio performance Wednesday night focused instead upon material from his own new album. But there was a glitch there as well. As appealing as some of the numbers sounded, Rubalcaba's CD, still untitled, won't be available for a few months.
All of which made for a listening experience that placed some demands upon the moderate-sized crowd, which was obliged to respond to completely unfamiliar works without a single word of explanation from Rubalcaba. Nor was the potential audience receptivity enhanced by the roving video cameraman who kept moving in for close-ups, often directly blocking the view of the musicians.
That said, the real wonder of the evening was that Rubalcaba, bassist Carlos Henriguez and drummer Ignacio Berroa managed to produce such an utterly compelling program, despite the distractions.
Many of the pieces roved through unusual metric territory, with explosive accents bursting out of the rhythmic flow. Others shifted easily from foot-tapping tumbaos and straight-ahead swing into floating, lyrical balladry. Most of the works--all unannounced--were Rubalcaba originals, with the addition of a '50s Mexican ballad and a martial composition by his grandfather, Jacobo Rubalcaba, that included a startling reference to John Phillip Sousa.
The playing was superb, individually and collectively. This is a trio that has been working together for some time now, and their musical compatibility was apparent in the subtle connectivity that was constantly present, even during the thorniest rhythmic passages. But the heartbeat of the music was generated by Rubalcaba, who seems to improve with every hearing--not just in his technical facility, which is extraordinary, but in the great creative density that invests all his soloing.
More than almost any pianist since the passing of Bill Evans, he truly has the capacity to make his instrument sing.
* The Gonzalo Rubalcaba Trio at Catalina Bar & Grill, 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd. Tonight and Saturday at 8:30 p.m., and Sunday at 7:30 p.m., $22 cover. Tonight and Saturday at 10:30 p.m. and Sunday at 9:30 p.m., $18 cover. Two-drink minimum. (323) 466- 2210.